The Great Plains Puppet Train is pulling into West Liberty for a four-day festival full of workshops, dinners, parties and public performances Sept. 13 to 16.
It’s the second time Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre has engineered this every-other-year Puppeteers of America regional festival in the troupe’s hometown.
“We hosted it in 2012, and people absolutely loved it, so they asked us if we’d do it again this year,” said Monica Leo, Eulenspiegel’s co-founder and festival director. “It’s actually the smallest town that a Puppeteers of American regional festival has ever been held in.”
But that initial whistle stop resonated with puppetry participants.
“One of the things that people commented on the most was the amount of local support that we got and the amount of local people that came to shows and got involved in the festival,” she said. “That is actually pretty unusual. A lot of times, it’s more like a family reunion for puppeteers, with not much of anybody else there.”
That’s not the case in this Muscatine County town.
“That’s partly because this is a small town and we’re well-integrated in the town, and have a partnership with the school, so all the kids comes and see puppet shows,” Leo said. “We’re a more integral part of the community than some puppetry centers are, especially in bigger cities.”
While the Great Plains region encompasses eight Midwest states and two Canadian provinces, puppeteers are coming from as far afield as Turkey, Mexico, Georgia and Colorado. Participants will present their shows, watch, learn and celebrate an art form rooted in the ancient world, from Egypt and Asia to the Americas before Columbus arrived. Written records have been traced back to Greece in the 5th century BC, and in the Middle Ages, the Catholic church used marionettes — French for “little Mary” — in its rituals and morality plays.
“But they kind of got kicked out of the church,” Leo said. “There’s something about puppets that makes you want to be irreverent. Not always — there’s plenty of very reverent things, too — but I think that’s maybe what happened.”
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Later, Punch and Judy shows, which date back to the 17th century in England and grew out of the 16th century Italian street theater, became the voice of the people.
“Punch is ‘Everyman.’ People complain about the violence in Punch and Judy, and that’s taken it off the menu nowadays. You don’t see too many Punch and Judy shows, but the violence was the common man’s expression about his oppression,” she said.
Puppetry has survived, thrived and evolved through the ages, still resonating with all ages.
“From the point of view of the audience, it’s different from human theater, in that it’s probably more fantasy-driven, because it’s one more level of suspending your disbelief,” Leo said. “It sucks you in completely, maybe even sometimes more than human theater does.
“The thing I find interesting about it is that as a puppeteer, audiences haven’t changed,” she said. “I’ve been doing this over 40 years now, and people are always telling me how different kids are than they used to be. I don’t see that at all — I don’t see any differences in the audiences.
“Even though the kids nowadays are inundated with special effects and all sorts of things that you’d think would make puppetry seem trivial to them, it’s not true. They are just as engaged. I have no problems keeping an audience of hundreds of kids engaged in a 45-minute story. I think the big difference is that it’s live.”
The festival will feature many styles of puppetry, from a traditional Turkish shadow show and a Mexican Day of the Dead story to a black light science show, elaborate marionettes, “crannies” in which the scenery moves by turning a crank, tabletop, hand puppets, rod puppets, a puppet film and a puppet slam with short vignettes.
Most shows are geared for all ages, but some are tailored for teens and adults. All performances are open to the public, while workshops and other special features are open to those who register for single-day or full-festival events.
It’s no coincidence that the festival falls during West Liberty’s Children Day celebration. Besides being the logical time slot, since Eulenspiegel always presents puppet shows and brings in several outside troupes, it’s a win-win all the way around.
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“I’ve been to a lot of puppetry festivals where there was no kid in sight anywhere, except maybe some of the children who came with their puppeteer parents,” Leo said. “It’s so much more fun and more instructive and more and interesting to see a show that’s intended for kids also attended by kids, so you can see their reactions at the same time.”
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IF YOU GO
l What: Great Plains Puppet Train regional festival
l Where: West Liberty, various sites, including Owl Glass Puppetry Center, New Strand Theatre, Regional Learning Center, historic depot, Methodist church, high school auditorium
l When: Sept. 13 to 16
l Features: Puppet shows for children, teens and adults; workshops; puppet slam; dinners; parties; five free performances Sept. 15 on Third Street downtown during the West Liberty Children’s Festival
l Cost: Full festival, $85 ages 12 and under to $215 adults; single-day festival registration, $30 to $95; half-price for West Liberty School District residents; most public puppet shows $6 (daytime) to $10
l Details: Greatplainspuppettrain.com and Owlglass.org/local-events-20182019/west-liberty-childrens-festival/